Sing of Liberty
Thomas Jefferson wrote in his Declaration that the purpose of government is to preserve and protect Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. While it is pretty clear what Life meant, and that Happiness for Jefferson ran along Aristotelean lines, which is to say along the lines of something like eudemonia. But Liberty … now there is a tricky word. In colonial America, historian David Hackett Fischer in a book everyone should read (or at least have as a reference) Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (America: a Cultural History), identifies four folkways or distinct communities in colonial America. These folkways had very different about almost every aspect of life but in particular they all had distinct and non-overlapping ideas of what the word Liberty meant. Alas, while I say (and really think) this is a great reference book it turns out my copy is at work … and not here at home where I’m writing this so some of this is going to be from memory.
- Virginia and its society had an idea of ordered liberty, that liberty was hierarchical, gentlemen, commoners, indentured servants, and slaves all had different degrees of liberty. This notion is today quite strongly rejected in American society.
- The Western/backwoods folkway had a very strong association with their idea of Liberty, and this idea remains in force in today’s society. I’ve remarked before that the Western folkway was essentially an almost picture perfect “Libertarian” society, which however very few of those who would call themselves Libertarians would wish to dwell. That particular dichotomy, that Libertarians would essentially recoil in horror at the best real world example of an actual living Libertarian society is a particular (fatal?) flaw of the Libertarianism as a political philosophy. But essentially Liberty for the backwoods concentrated on individual freedom to do as one chooses as well as a strong distrust of any form of governmental interference.
- The New Englanders had a notion which they called “Publick Liberty” and defended this with violence against British intrusion a number of times prior to the revolution. This was not an individual notion of Liberty but instead their notion was communal. It was the freedom of a village or town to order its affairs as it saw fit.
- The Quaker states (Pennsylvania and parts of New Jersey had a notion of Liberty that I’ve forgotten, but which I think remains today. I’ll look it up in the morning and append that at that time.
Jefferson, I think, knew very well that there were conflicting and non-overlapping ideas of Liberty and was intentionally vague in his Declaration so that this thing, which each folkway felt threatened could be used as a rallying point instead of one of division. It was quite helpful in that each region used the same word for very different things. However, today I think our ideas of Liberty have further differentiated. In an extended comment trail in which freedom was an important feature it became clear that when we talk of freedom or liberty we are not always talking about the same thing.
Love is an English word which means a lot of things. The Greek language had several words for love disambiguating several notions that fall into the one English word. Folklore has it that the American peoples of the Arctic regions have 27 words for snow to distinguish separate types of snow. In our office at work, we devised the word “thermy” to disambiguate “hot” between spicy hot and thermally hot food, feel free to take up the use of that word as you see fit. Anyhow I’d offer that there might be some use to coming up with some different words to disambiguate exactly what we mean by Liberty or Freedom. To that end, we have to first consider what other things that the word freedom or liberty has come to mean. So, besides the four usages above, do you have any other ideas of what Liberty (Freedom) means that are not included in the above four choices?
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